Caleb Williams, by William Godwin

Chapter 5.

It was in one of the lucid intervals, as I may term them, that occurred during this period, that a peasant was brought before him, in his character of a justice of peace, upon an accusation of having murdered his fellow. As Mr. Falkland had by this time acquired the repute of a melancholy valetudinarian, it is probable he would not have been called upon to act in his official character upon the present occasion, had it not been that two or three of the neighbouring justices were all of them from home at once, so that he was the only one to be found in a circuit of many miles. The reader however must not imagine, though I have employed the word insanity in describing Mr. Falkland’s symptoms, that he was by any means reckoned for a madman by the generality of those who had occasion to observe him. It is true that his behaviour, at certain times, was singular and unaccountable; but then, at other times, there was in it so much dignity, regularity, and economy; he knew so well how to command and make himself respected; his actions and carriage were so condescending, considerate, and benevolent, that, far from having forfeited the esteem of the unfortunate or the many, they were loud and earnest in his praises.

I was present at the examination of this peasant. The moment I heard of the errand which had brought this rabble of visitors, a sudden thought struck me. I conceived the possibility of rendering the incident subordinate to the great enquiry which drank up all the currents of my soul. I said, this man is arraigned of murder, and murder is the master-key that wakes distemper in the mind of Mr. Falkland. I will watch him without remission. I will trace all the mazes of his thought. Surely at such a time his secret anguish must betray itself. Surely, if it be not my own fault, I shall now be able to discover the state of his plea before the tribunal of unerring justice.

I took my station in a manner most favourable to the object upon which my mind was intent. I could perceive in Mr. Falkland’s features, as he entered, a strong reluctance to the business in which he was engaged; but there was no possibility of retreating. His countenance was embarrassed and anxious; he scarcely saw any body. The examination had not proceeded far, before he chanced to turn his eye to the part of the room where I was. It happened in this as in some preceding instances — we exchanged a silent look, by which we told volumes to each other. Mr. Falkland’s complexion turned from red to pale, and from pale to red. I perfectly understood his feelings, and would willingly have withdrawn myself. But it was impossible; my passions were too deeply engaged; I was rooted to the spot; though my own life, that of my master, or almost of a whole nation had been at stake, I had no power to change my position.

The first surprise however having subsided, Mr. Falkland assumed a look of determined constancy, and even seemed to increase in self-possession much beyond what could have been expected from his first entrance. This he could probably have maintained, had it not been that the scene, instead of being permanent, was in some sort perpetually changing. The man who was brought before him was vehemently accused by the brother of the deceased as having acted from the most rooted malice. He swore that there had been an old grudge between the parties, and related several instances of it. He affirmed that the murderer had sought the earliest opportunity of wreaking his revenge; had struck the first blow; and, though the contest was in appearance only a common boxing match, had watched the occasion of giving a fatal stroke, which was followed by the instant death of his antagonist.

While the accuser was giving in his evidence, the accused discovered every token of the most poignant sensibility. At one time his features were convulsed with anguish; tears unbidden trickled down his manly cheeks; and at another he started with apparent astonishment at the unfavourable turn that was given to the narrative, though without betraying any impatience to interrupt. I never saw a man less ferocious in his appearance. He was tall, well made, and comely. His countenance was ingenuous and benevolent, without folly. By his side stood a young woman, his sweetheart, extremely agreeable in her person, and her looks testifying how deeply she interested herself in the fate of her lover. The accidental spectators were divided, between indignation against the enormity of the supposed criminal, and compassion for the poor girl that accompanied him. They seemed to take little notice of the favourable appearances visible in the person of the accused, till, in the sequel, those appearances were more forcibly suggested to their attention. For Mr. Falkland, he was at one moment engrossed by curiosity and earnestness to investigate the tale, while at another he betrayed a sort of revulsion of sentiment, which made the investigation too painful for him to support.

When the accused was called upon for his defence, he readily owned the misunderstanding that had existed, and that the deceased was the worst enemy he had in the world. Indeed he was his only enemy, and he could not tell the reason that had made him so. He had employed every effort to overcome his animosity, but in vain. The deceased had upon all occasions sought to mortify him, and do him an ill turn; but he had resolved never to be engaged in a broil with him, and till this day he had succeeded. If he had met with a misfortune with any other man, people at least might have thought it accident; but now it would always be believed that he had acted from secret malice and a bad heart.

The fact was, that he and his sweetheart had gone to a neighbouring fair, where this man had met them. The man had often tried to affront him; and his passiveness, interpreted into cowardice, had perhaps encouraged the other to additional rudeness. Finding that he had endured trivial insults to himself with an even temper, the deceased now thought proper to turn his brutality upon the young woman that accompanied him. He pursued them; he endeavoured in various manners to harass and vex them; they had sought in vain to shake him off. The young woman was considerably terrified. The accused expostulated with their persecutor, and asked him how he could be so barbarous as to persist in frightening a woman? He replied with an insulting tone, “Then the woman should find some one able to protect her; people that encouraged and trusted to such a thief as that, deserved no better!” The accused tried every expedient he could invent; at length he could endure it no longer; he became exasperated, and challenged the assailant. The challenge was accepted; a ring was formed; he confided the care of his sweetheart to a bystander; and unfortunately the first blow he struck proved fatal.

The accused added, that he did not care what became of him. He had been anxious to go through the world in an inoffensive manner, and now he had the guilt of blood upon him. He did not know but it would be kindness in them to hang him out of the way; for his conscience would reproach him as long as he lived, and the figure of the deceased, as he had lain senseless and without motion at his feet, would perpetually haunt him. The thought of this man, at one moment full of life and vigour, and the next lifted a helpless corpse from the ground, and all owing to him, was a thought too dreadful to be endured. He had loved the poor maiden, who had been the innocent occasion of this, with all his heart; but from this time he should never support the sight of her. The sight would bring a tribe of fiends in its rear. One unlucky minute had poisoned all his hopes, and made life a burden to him. Saying this, his countenance fell, the muscles of his face trembled with agony, and he looked the statue of despair.

This was the story of which Mr. Falkland was called upon to be the auditor. Though the incidents were, for the most part, wide of those which belonged to the adventures of the preceding volume, and there had been much less policy and skill displayed on either part in this rustic encounter, yet there were many points which, to a man who bore the former strongly in his recollection, suggested a sufficient resemblance. In each case it was a human brute persisting in a course of hostility to a man of benevolent character, and suddenly and terribly cut off in the midst of his career. These points perpetually smote upon the heart of Mr. Falkland. He at one time started with astonishment, and at another shifted his posture, like a man who is unable longer to endure the sensations that press upon him. Then he new strung his nerves to stubborn patience. I could see, while his muscles preserved an inflexible steadiness, tears of anguish roll down his cheeks. He dared not trust his eyes to glance towards the side of the room where I stood; and this gave an air of embarrassment to his whole figure. But when the accused came to speak of his feelings, to describe the depth of his compunction for an involuntary fault, he could endure it no longer. He suddenly rose, and with every mark of horror and despair rushed out of the room.

This circumstance made no material difference in the affair of the accused. The parties were detained about half an hour. Mr. Falkland had already heard the material parts of the evidence in person. At the expiration of that interval, he sent for Mr. Collins out of the room. The story of the culprit was confirmed by many witnesses who had seen the transaction. Word was brought that my master was indisposed; and, at the same time, the accused was ordered to be discharged. The vengeance of the brother however, as I afterwards found, did not rest here, and he met with a magistrate, more scrupulous or more despotic, by whom the culprit was committed for trial.

This affair was no sooner concluded, than I hastened into the garden, and plunged into the deepest of its thickets. My mind was full, almost to bursting. I no sooner conceived myself sufficiently removed from all observation, than my thoughts forced their way spontaneously to my tongue, and I exclaimed, in a fit of uncontrollable enthusiasm, “This is the murderer; the Hawkinses were innocent! I am sure of it! I will pledge my life for it! It is out! It is discovered! Guilty, upon my soul!”

While I thus proceeded with hasty steps along the most secret paths of the garden, and from time to time gave vent to the tumult of my thoughts in involuntary exclamations, I felt as if my animal system had undergone a total revolution. My blood boiled within me. I was conscious to a kind of rapture for which I could not account. I was solemn, yet full of rapid emotion, burning with indignation and energy. In the very tempest and hurricane of the passions, I seemed to enjoy the most soul-ravishing calm. I cannot better express the then state of my mind than by saying, I was never so perfectly alive as at that moment.

This state of mental elevation continued for several hours, but at length subsided, and gave place to more deliberate reflection. One of the first questions that then occurred was, what shall I do with the knowledge I have been so eager to acquire? I had no inclination to turn informer. I felt what I had had no previous conception of, that it was possible to love a murderer, and, as I then understood it, the worst of murderers. I conceived it to be in the highest degree absurd and iniquitous, to cut off a man qualified for the most essential and extensive utility, merely out of retrospect to an act which, whatever were its merits, could not be retrieved.

This thought led me to another, which had at first passed unnoticed. If I had been disposed to turn informer, what had occurred amounted to no evidence that was admissible in a court of justice. Well then, added I, if it be such as would not be admitted at a criminal tribunal, am I sure it is such as I ought to admit? There were twenty persons besides myself present at the scene from which I pretend to derive such entire conviction. Not one of them saw it in the light that I did. It either appeared to them a casual and unimportant circumstance, or they thought it sufficiently accounted for by Mr. Falkland’s infirmity and misfortunes. Did it really contain such an extent of arguments and application, that nobody but I was discerning enough to see?

But all this reasoning produced no alteration in my way of thinking. For this time I could not get it out of my mind for a moment: “Mr. Falkland is the murderer! He is guilty! I see it! I feel it! I am sure of it!” Thus was I hurried along by an uncontrollable destiny. The state of my passions in their progressive career, the inquisitiveness and impatience of my thoughts, appeared to make this determination unavoidable.

An incident occurred while I was in the garden, that seemed to make no impression upon me at the time, but which I recollected when my thoughts were got into somewhat of a slower motion. In the midst of one of my paroxysms of exclamation, and when I thought myself most alone, the shadow of a man as avoiding me passed transiently by me at a small distance. Though I had scarcely caught a faint glimpse of his person, there was something in the occurrence that persuaded me it was Mr. Falkland. I shuddered at the possibility of his having overheard the words of my soliloquy. But this idea, alarming as it was, had not power immediately to suspend the career of my reflections. Subsequent circumstances however brought back the apprehension to my mind. I had scarcely a doubt of its reality, when dinner-time came, and Mr. Falkland was not to be found. Supper and bed-time passed in the same manner. The only conclusion made by his servants upon this circumstance was, that he was gone upon one of his accustomed melancholy rambles.

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